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How the Civil War Changed Your Life

8 things to think about as we mark the conflict's 150th anniversary

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An unidentified Negro woman stands  in front of a building with the Georgia State flag and the United States flag.

An unidentified woman stands in front of a building in Georgia that displays both the state and U.S. flags. — Jack Delano/Library of Congress

8. We're all Americans.

It took the War Between the States to make us one nation, indivisible. Before 1861, the United States were loosely tied entities and always described as a plural noun, as in, "The United States are in trade with France."

The war's bloodiest battle came at Gettysburg in 1863, with 51,000 casualties in just three days. Although the Union stopped Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Northern invasion, young men's bodies littered the farms and gardens that had turned into a battleground. Was the preservation of these united states worth the cost in blood?

At a memorial for the dead, Lincoln intentionally called on the Union to persevere for a single national ideal: "[T]hat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The effect of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, just 272 words from beginning to end, was radical and immediate. "By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed," Wills writes. "Because of it, we live in a different America."

But the shift was more than a statesman's creation. It was also forged in the experience of hunger, disease, blood and death shared for four years by the Union and Confederacy alike. Tellingly, the tradition of Civil War reenactments began even before the conflict had ended, as returning soldiers recreated battlefield scenes at home to educate the citizenry and pay tribute to their fallen comrades.

Ken and Ric Burns, in their introduction to the book The Civil War, write: "Some events so pervasively condition the life of a culture that they retain the power to fascinate permanently. They become the focus of myth and the anchor of meaning for a whole society."

The Civil War became our anchor. Ever since, whether big government or small government, whether doves or hawks, black or white, we have all been one thing: Americans.

Betsy Towner lives in California.

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